Opponents of high levels of immigration say we need to be able to talk about reducing immigrant numbers without being automatically subject to accusations of racism and xenophobia. Are they right?

Anti-immigration policies are being pushed more and more this year. This week has seen two further missives against immigration - from the Green Party and the Salvation Army. Both are advocating that current immigration levels be lowered.

It seems that immigration is likely to continue as a major issue of debate and disagreement. But is that a bad thing? And is it really always xenophobic or racist to oppose immigrants coming to this country, especially for policies that merely aim to reduce the levels of immigration?

Salvation Army and Green policies on immigration

Yesterday the Salvation Army published its report warning of an "explosion" of immigrants taking jobs off young people - see Simon Collins' Migrants 'crowding out' young Kiwis from jobs - Salvation Army. According to this news article, "the report says too many work visas are being granted in four sectors where young Kiwis could be finding work: building, dairying, hospitality and aged care."

Today the Herald answers the report by saying that the research needs to be taken seriously, but ultimately "Young migrants are serving some sectors well. New Zealand would be poorer without them" - see the editorial: Don't blame migrants for jobless youth.

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In the weekend, the Green Party co-leader James Shaw appeared to announce a new policy - or at least a new interpretation of his party's policy - that would put a cap of about one per cent on immigration numbers, and that this would include New Zealanders returning from overseas. Such a policy would see current immigration numbers cut by about half - see Jacob Brown's Greens: Govt immigration curbs not enough. You can watch the six-minute interview from The Nation: Interview: James Shaw.

The interview was widely seen as a U-turn for the Greens, who had previously criticised the Labour Party for its anti-immigration policies and statements. But the Greens have always had concerns about population growth, especially based on issues of environmental sustainability. And related to this, today Newswire reports that: NZ population tipped to reach 5 million by 2020.

Racism and xenophobia questioned

The author of the Salvation Army report, Alan Johnson, has spoken out today in a blog post that warns that "the immigration debate risks turning into a reactionary, petty spectacle if we don't insist that it be undertaken rationally and inclusively" - see: Calling our immigration policy for what it is.

Johnson declares that it is "quite wrong to ignore the impacts of immigration on housing and labour markets for fear of appearing xenophobic or mean spirited". And he accuses the pro-immigration lobby with being unconcerned with those who bear the brunt of immigration: "This sells short those at the bottom of these markets but then these people have never been of that much interest to the urban liberals who dominate policy and media circles. It is so much better to focus on such things as diversity and the rich variety of restaurants we can visit - some of which no doubt readily exploit migrant labour."

Johnson complains that "The National Government has done a great job at silencing criticism of immigration from the liberal-left. Until recently any mention of concern over the deluge of migrants coming into the country under various guises has been greeted with claims that critics are xenophobic or even racist."

Others have also made pleas for so-called "name-calling" to be removed from the debate, and in fact for the more radical or extremist views to be excluded or ignored. A few months ago, the Dominion Post said It's time to have a sensible debate about immigration. This editorial appealed for a "debate without fear-mongering or xenophobia", and there was a "case for reducing net immigration flows from their present very high rates. This is not at all to support xenophobic calls to "cut immigration to the bone".

And around that time Duncan Garner said, Little is right to question immigration. He recommended that the Labour Party go harder on the issue: "In the 2014 election Labour started talking about immigration - then backed away. Of course it's populist to talk immigration, but that doesn't mean there's no issue here."

New questions and stances on immigration

Last month's North & South magazine was dedicated to the immigration debate, with an especially interesting article by Graham Adams - see: Is it wrong to want fewer immigrants?

In this, Adams suggests that recently "the tide of history has turned against unfettered migration" around the world. And here in New Zealand, "For everyone's sake, it's time we started talking about immigration openly, without accusations of racism and xenophobia closing down the debate before it gets interesting and - more importantly - illuminating."

This particular issue of North & South led the Spinoff's Duncan Greive to declare: Shock: Media currently hosting world's first non-racist immigration debate.

Graham Adams's other articles on immigration are also now online and worth reading - see: Goff fans the fire over immigration, and The changing face of Auckland.

Similarly, Metro's Simon Wilson - who has just announced that he's been made redundant - has also had an important feature published on how immigration has reshaped Auckland - see: Facing our future: How the population boom is transforming Auckland.

It seems that many people are re-thinking their stance on immigration. Rightwing political commentator Matthew Hooton recently commented (on Danyl Mclauchlan's Dim-Post blog - but also reproduced in one of Graham Adams' articles) about how he's less sure of his pro-immigration views: "There is also the argument on immigration, that the liberal globalists (of which I count myself one) have spent at least 20 years arguing "immigration is good for you because it makes a country more cosmopolitan and internationally connected, and also [some say] a moral duty, and if you are against it you are racist". My regular use of this argument over many years (or at least one like it) was a reaction to the vile way Winston Peters raised the issue in the early 1990s. I suspect other liberal globalists in the UK and US are reacting the same way to the vile Farage and Trump. But it is a false argument. Immigration is a choice. No country has to take anyone in if they don't want to (except I guess UN refugee quotas). But for 20 years no one in authority in New Zealand has really made the case for why immigration is good for us - just if you're agin it your a racist, provincial xenophobe. Yet as I look back over the last 25 years in NZ, I am not sure that Peters was wrong on the substance of the issue".

Danyl Mclauchlan has also explained his change of stance this week, in light of the Greens new position: "the whole Brexit debate did make me wonder why I supported a high level of immigration. The standard left-wing take on this is that immigration is a good thing, because it is, and anyone who disagrees is a racist and a xenophobe. Now, there are also economic arguments for immigration: it boosts GDP, it keeps the Labour market competitive, it is (possibly) an antidote to an ageing population with low birthrates and high superannuation liabilities. But none of them are very left-wing, or progressive, and some of them are notions the left should probably oppose. If there's a coherent left-wing argument for high immigration - other than claiming that anyone opposing it is evil - then I haven't heard it" - see: Immigration and changing your mind.

Criticisms of the Greens on immigration

The Green Party's apparent U-turn had Winston Peters celebrating, and proclaiming "Who will call who racist and xenophobic now?" Peters pointed out that "The Greens have always stood on a pedestal, looking down their noses, claiming the high moral ground as New Zealand First warned that immigration was strangling our public services, cutting Kiwis out of jobs, and helping push house prices up."

But many on the political left were much less impressed with the Green shift - in fact some were angry. The hardest reaction came from Giovanni Tiso - see: On the need for a sustainable immigration policy, and where I think you should stick it.

Tiso said that the debate about reducing immigration numbers is bizarre given that New Zealand is so underpopulated: "it has half the population density of Europe, but only so long as you go out of your way to include Russia. Or one fifteenth of the population density of the United Kingdom. In fact the only countries in the OECD with fewer people per square kilometre are Australia, Iceland, Canada and Norway, due to being largely uninhabitable, whereas the small country - as well as not being actually that small - is quite lovely up and down." But his bigger point is that there are catastrophes occurring around the world, and this means New Zealand should be allowing more economic migrants and refugees in.

Ben Peterson, a Unite union organiser, makes some similar points, but more broadly argues that "James Shaw is wrong in fact, wrong in principle, and wrong in politic" - see: Wrong - The Greens on Immigration. He characterises the Greens' new policy as being driven by a pragmatic chase for centrist voters, but claims that ironically the party might lose more voters as a result: "By diverting to immigration, the Greens are missing the opportunity to be the only party actively campaigning for the primary concerns of Kiwis- inequality and housing. The opportunities to be a principled and exciting opposition are huge, and are now being missed."

Certainly many people have noted that all the political parties now appear to have similar policies in favour of reducing immigration. This led Emma Espiner (@emmawehipeihana) to tweet: "Being pro-immigration sure is limiting my options for next year's general election." Similarly, Lew Stoddard (‏@LewSOS) asked: "So if I want to live in a country that accepts foreigners, who the hell am I supposed to vote for? Not Labour, not the Nats, not the Greens".

But others on the left approved of the Greens' position - see Martyn Bradbury's Greens do massive U-turn on immigration - and why they are right to do so. He focuses on the student visa scheme. See also, Mike Treen's The immigration scam is the one run by the bosses and their government.

And economist Michael Reddell has some sympathy with the Green's new policy, but argues the mechanics of it wouldn't work - see: Rethinking immigration policy: the Greens.

Finally, while all the political parties seem to be campaigning on immigration numbers due to public sentiment - see, for example, TVNZ's More people worried about number of migrants entering NZ - poll - it's worth remembering that generally New Zealanders still have a positive attitude towards immigrants, as shown in Daniel Faitaua's report from March: Kiwimeter: Overall New Zealanders feel pretty positive towards immigrants.